Theology I Would Re-read

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Theology books I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020. 

I read quite a few theology books, which may be odd for some. All I can say is that if one believes, according to the Westminster Confession that “the chief end of human beings (“man” in the generic form) is to worship God and enjoy Him forever,” then it seems a worthy form of reading to explore the excellency of God, and how we might joyfully relate to this God. No offense if you see things differently, though the question of “chief end” is one we all must answer. Here is some of the theology, I would re-read. In fact, some of these I have re-read.

Garwood Anderson, Paul’s New Perspective. There has been much discussion of the “new perspective” on Paul. This careful study of Paul’s writings explores the possibility of development in Paul’s understanding, offering warrant for both “traditional” and “new” perspectives.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  One of the best summers I ever spent including working through these two volumes, marveling at one who loved God so deeply and reasoned so carefully.

Daniel L. Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God. This is the best book I’ve read on the troubling Old Testament passages that connect Israel’s violence with God. Hawk allows for the disturbing complexity of the biblical witness that explores the messiness of God who is both in but not of the ancient Near Eastern world of Israel.

Matthew Levering, Dying and the Virtues. A probing exploration of the biblical virtues by which we live–and die. He revives the ancient pastoral conversation on what it means to make a good end to our lives.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God. No single book played a greater role in opening my eyes to the greatness of God and the joy of knowing Him. This was one to be read a few pages at a time. I’ve done so several times.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity. The shortest book in the collection, but no less rich in its insights into the mystery of the Triune nature of God.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. I spent Lent last year reading this work, leaving me in wonder at the death of the Son of God.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith challenges the notion that all we need to do is get people to believe the right things. His theology of what it means to be human is to be desiring creatures, and that we believe what we practice, that “thick” practices shape our spiritual affections.

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ. For many years, I was part of a reading group called the Dead Theologians Society. After reading this work together, one of our participants remarked that this was the best book we had read (in a group that had read Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and many others). Stott, with his typical clarity of expression and insight, sets forth the work of the cross, and his defense of substitution, not so popular nowadays, with depth and concision.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is an absolutely magnificent study of the idea of the resurrection in “second temple” Judaism and the surrounding culture, and the evidences for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things all these works have in common is that they are works of conviction, that pulse with the passion for God of the authors, that elevates them from our image of theology as a dry and dusty discipline. There are many others that I could have added and I’d love to hear of those you would re-read. It’s just possible that I might choose to read them for the first time. I always love a book recommendation that says, “I would read it again.” In the area of theology, that tells me that the author has moved beyond the commonplace nostrums to a personal knowledge of the God of whom they write.

 

Review: Experiencing God

experiencing God

Experiencing God (Inner Land – Volume 3), Eberhard Arnold. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: What it means for us to truly experience the greatness of God and the peace of God.

Many of us long for a deeper experience of God and peace in our lives. Eberhard Arnold, in this third volume of the Inner Land series, proposes that there is a far deeper and richer experience of God for believers than we reckon, but that this calls for far more of us, really all of us.

This work is broken into two parts: “experiencing God” and “the peace of God.” The first part explores how we may enter into a deep experience of God. It all begins with God drawing near to us, inviting us to escape judgment and know forgiveness, to know both his greatness and our smallness. He considers how God discloses himself in creation and guides history. As we trust in Christ we come to new life, and the inner life brings change in our love for others under the saving grace of God, leading to the just community and continuing renewal. Above all, we experience the strength of God for all of our life.

Peace is so much more than an inner experience of tranquility. It is both unity and justice; it is constructive work. It is rooted in God’s truth, frees us to serve, and demands purity. The unity of peace among the people of God can be expected to evoke opposition. Hardness toward peace leads to the judgment of war. Striking here is the development of the peace ethic of the early Christians in contrast to both abortion and the amassing of wealth in the culture around them, a culture of war. At the heart of it all, Jesus is our peace.

Reading Eberhard is best done slowly and meditatively. His sentences do the work of paragraphs, and paragraphs the work of chapters in many books. One example:

   God begins–that is the end for man. When in fear and trembling we know God and are known by him, God is drawing near to us in person. When the Most High descends to us, the degraded, he tears away all cloaks and barriers. God is revealed only through this fearful experience. When we experience God, we appear before him as we are. As long as we shrink from being exposed for what we are, from God’s unhindered recognition of us, we remain lost and helpless, overwhelmed by the superior power of the external world. As long as we submit to things as they are and remain their slaves, terror of God repels us and keeps us at a distance (p.5).

So much here. God’s approach, the fearsomeness of knowing and being known, the choice between vulnerability and enslavement. No sentimental, inspirational writing here but the truth we desperately need and often resist. The choice between a hard-won peace and unity, and the discord and war that surround us. Arnold offers us the vital, uncompromising substance of truth in every sentence, every paragraph and page rather than innocuous “inspiring thoughts.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paul’s Idea of Community

paul's idea of community

Paul’s Idea of Community (3rd Edition), Robert J. Banks. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of how Paul understood the nature of community in the churches he planted, considered against the cultural backgrounds of first century AD Greco-Roman culture.

No writer of scripture has contributed more to our understanding of the nature of the church and the practices of Christian community than Paul. Yet we often read into Paul our own culture, resulting in our missing the cultural context in which Paul worked and how his writings addressed early believers in that culture. Robert J. Banks has devoted scholarly attention to this topic since the first edition of this volume in 1994. Now, he offers us an updated version of this work, drawing on the most recent research, reflected in an updated bibliography, and a additional appendix, offering a “narrative exegesis” of Paul in a fictional account of a visit to an early house church gathering.

He sets the early Christian movement in the context of other contemporary religions and emperor worship, as well as the social structures of the Roman world. He then discusses the distinctive character of Paul’s idea of Christian freedom–a freedom lived for others. In companion chapters, Banks describes the work setting in which house churches often existed, in a building with a shopfront where business was done, and gatherings in family quarters either in the back or in an “upper room,” and then the heavenly setting. He considers community in the context of the loving family household, calling attention to Paul’s use of family terminology, and the organic reality inherent in the use of “body” imagery.

The chapter on mutual learning and testing of faith was especially valuable, I thought, because of its focus of the knowledge element of faith. In a time focused on praxis, Banks reminds us how much the language of thinking and knowledge and testing is found in Paul’s writing. He shows how this informs faith, hope, and love, and distinguishes Paul’s use of “knowledge” from that of the mystery cults, stoics, cynics, and Judaism.

He considers the practical expressions of fellowship from baptism, to laying on hands, sharing of possessions and holy kisses, and especially the common meal, bringing people together from across the social classes of the day. He offers a trenchant analysis of Paul’s use of spiritual gift language and the configurations of their usage holding together the tension of grace and order. Diversity extends beyond gifts to gender, race, and class, and Banks shows the radical ways the early Christian movement overcame these distinctions in the practice of equality, albeit allowing for functional diversity. This equality eliminates distinctions between priests and laity, between officials and ordinary members, and between the holy and the common. Leadership is defined instead by function and not position. Banks argues here that the laying on of hands was not an “ordination” imparting a special grace but rather the recognition of congregational discernment in prayer and fellowship.

The last four chapters explore the relationship of “missioners” like Paul and his diverse companions to the church, a body sharing in partnership with that mission. He describes how Paul exercises his authority in relation to the other apostles and through both authoritative teaching and service. It is curious that Banks’ treatment of the Pastorals is relegated to an appendix, representing a deferral to scholarship that classifies these as “disputed.” He leaves the question for the reader to decide, noting both continuities and discontinuities and development from Paul’s thought.

Every chapter has been the subject of numerous books and monographs. What Banks accomplishes is to offer a comprehensive overview with both scholarly depth and the concision valuable for pastoral theologians who want to ground practice in solid biblical and sociocultural studies.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual Warfare, William F. Cook III and Chuck Lawless (Foreword by Thom Rainer). Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019.

Summary: A biblical and theological survey of all the passages in the Bible concerning Satan and spiritual warfare and practical applications for the life of the church.

William Cook and Chuck Lawless make both a biblical and practical case for the reality of spiritual warfare, the personal forces of evil who seek to undermine and oppose the life of followers of Christ, as well as keep in darkness those who have not come to faith. In this work they provide a comprehensive guide for believers to understanding the warfare we are in the midst of.

First of all, they survey all the relevant Old and New Testament that refer to Satan and his forces and spiritual warfare. They provide concise explanations of each passage, offering different readings of difficult passages like 1 Peter 3:18-22, and giving their own interpretation. From the early chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, they give the account of Satan’s efforts to oppose the purposes of God from the temptation of the Adam and Eve to the final defeat and destruction of Satan. What they make clear is that while the forces of darkness deceive and tempt and oppose, human sin is our own willful disobedience to God. What is fascinating is that the New Testament portion of this survey is four times as long as the Old Testament, particularly with the testing of Jesus, the confrontations with demons throughout the gospels and Acts, the spiritual opposition aroused as the church moves into the Gentile world, and the warfare of the book of Revelation of the dragon and the beast against the people of God and the final defeat of Satan.

The second half of the book draws on this material and applies this to our personal and corporate lives as believers. They begin with how spiritual warfare manifests in the local church, defining both the pillars of a healthy church and the lines of attack on each of these. They speak of the warfare against evangelism, blinding unbelievers to truth and rendering believers ineffective through sin, discouragement, pride, and fear that shuts our mouths. They talk about the remedy of prayer for “GOD’S HEART” (an acronym). They extend this line of discussion into mission and the disinterest, division, and distraction that needs to be countered with teaching and humble dependence. They look at attacks on the family and conclude with the warfare against leaders, addressing why many finish badly. Since many who read this book are likely to be leaders, this is one chapter not to be skipped but to be read, to be used in self-examination and spiritual accountability.

Over and over throughout this book, the authors focus on the dangers of pride, self-reliance, divisions between believers, and biblical illiteracy. At the same time, the authors emphasize the greatness of God, the victory of Christ, and the power of the Spirit, all enabling believers to overcome and prevail by faith.

This book is a useful source book for anyone teaching on spiritual warfare, combining a thorough survey of scripture with practical applications grounded in years of pastoral experience. It steers a healthy balance that both recognizes the reality of spiritual warfare, and the reality that, in the victory of the cross and resurrection, Satan and his forces have been decisively defeated and the believer provided with all he or she needs for life and godliness.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Making of Stanley Hauerwas

Making

The Making of Stanley Hauerwas (New Explorations in Theology), David B. Hunsicker, foreword by Stanley Hauerwas. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and the apparently contrary threads of being characterized as both Barthian, and a postliberal theologian.

Stanley Hauerwas has been one of the most visible and discussed theologians of the last forty years. His challenging work on the nature of the church, his assertion of the church as a political structure, and his social ethics has evoked much discussion. In this work, David B. Hunsicker focuses on two apparently contrary aspects of Hauerwas theological work–his claim to be a Barthian, and the postliberal character of his theology, focusing on narrative interpretation of scripture and emphasizing ecclesiology instead of Christology.

Hunsicker begins by tracing Hauerwas biography and the Barthian influences in his thought–particularly in rejecting the divorce of theology and ethics, and in rejecting theological liberalism. He then offers a case study of how each of them approached abortion, how both reject natural theology approaches arguing from universal reasons, but how Hauerwas parts in grounding his exploration in ecclesiology and how the church functions in moral formation. He concludes in the first part that Hauerwas was indirectly influenced by Barth, and that his post liberalism expands the idea of what it means to be a “Barthian.”

In part two, Hunsicker considers the claim that Hauerwas learned to keep theology and ethics together from Barth. The discussion revolves around a key difference–Barth’s rejection of a casuistic approach ethics. Hauerwas reintroduces casuistry in his ecclesiological approach but the differences are reconciled in Hauerwas’ narrative approach to Christology, with the ethics of the church formed by its imitation of Christ.

In the final part, Hunsicker takes on the question of whether Hauerwas is more Ritschlian than Barthian in that his use of scripture is sociological rather than theological. Hunsicker contends that while Hauerwas goes beyond Barth in his focus on the church, his theology of the church is consistent with that of Barth. The conclusion includes some of Hunsicker’s ideas of helpful clarifications Hauerwas could make to resolve the apparent contradictions.

One question I wonder about beyond academic curiosity is why this all matters? One of the things this work underscored is the critical connection between Christ and the church, that our encounter with Christ is embodied and lived out through the church into the world. Through the church, we are both formed in Christ and engaged with the world. This work also helps explicate the way Hauerwas departs from liberal theology and the creative tension in his work in its Barthian and postliberal aspects. Finally, it underscores Hauerwas critique that Christian ethics in Twentieth century America was more American than Christian, and Hauerwas effort to recover a church more Christian than American.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Gospel Allegiance

gospel allegiance

Gospel AllegianceMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that our traditional ideas of salvation by faith reflect an inadequate gospel that fails to call people to allegiance to King Jesus.

A couple years ago, Matthew Bates provoked a conversation about the nature of the gospel and faith with his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone (review). Bates’ contention is that our traditional statements about salvation by faith fails to capture a critically important element of the gospel, that the coming of Jesus was the coming of a king, whose purpose was to call people from the nations to a new allegiance to Christ as king.

This book expands on this argument, designed for a pastoral rather than theological audience. He engages other authors such as John MacArthur and John Piper who have written about these matters, noting both where they are in agreement and where their understanding of gospel, faith, and works may be deficient. He proposes that our typical rendering of gospel presentations like the “Roman road” are inadequate.

In addition to the pastoral focus, Bates proposes that this book focuses more on the gospel, defining it more precisely and thoroughly. He goes further in his discussion of faith, grace and works. He argues that this is not a different gospel but a re-framing of the gospel. Finally, this study primarily focuses on Paul.

A key to understanding Bates’ main idea is this phrase in Romans 16:26 which says, “…so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.” Bates sees pistis, the word for “faith” as more than simply a mental or emotional disposition but rather “faith-obedience” or allegiance, and also emphasizes the idea that Christ’s purpose was to call the nations (“Gentiles”) to obedient allegiance to him.

Bates shows in this book how this is not salvation by works and yet how works are saving in the idea of allegiance to the King embodied in a life of obedience. He show how these are distinct in the writing of Paul from works of the law. His discussion of grace is perhaps the most challenging part of the book, both in terms of understanding and in terms of the ideas he presents. He argues that grace may be both unmerited and require bodily reciprocation, and by this, argues against “free grace” movements as cheap and false grace.

In his final chapter, he connects allegiance back to the Great Commission and Jesus call to make disciples. He argues:

   Any gospel that makes discipleship optional or additional is a false gospel. Gospel allegiance helps us to understand why faith in Jesus, discipleship, and obedience to his commands to hand in hand. In traditional articulations that place saving faith in opposition to works and the law, it is hard to find a positive place for Jesus’s commands. Not so if saving faith is allegiance to the king.

One of the distinctions that I am not at ease with is the distinction he makes between our being saved and our final salvation. He proposes that forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, and glory, are benefits of our final salvation. He speaks of all of these in the present as potential benefits. I would contend that they are already realized in our lives by grace in part, while our full realization of these will be in glory.

The value of Bates’ work is in his idea of allegiance and how it integrates faith, grace, and obedience, often set in conflict with each other. Furthermore, allegiance reminds us of the ultimate claim Jesus has on our lives above any other allegiances, involving our implicit and embodied obedience. It speaks as a challenge to allegiances to present-day Caesar’s and their empires, and all other false gods. It challenges versions of cheap grace that allow people to rationalize persisting in unrepented sin or refusing to advance in one’s discipleship and embodied holiness, claiming they have “believed” and are saved by grace. What most impressed me in this book is that it was clear that Bates’ concerns for gospel allegiance arise from a passion for the glory of Christ and a desire to see people truly converted, and set upon lives of discipleship. He models the kind of concern that every minister of the gospel ought have to be sure we have not run in vain or labored in vain (Philippians 2:16).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Advent

Advent

Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus ChristFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: A collection of sermons and writings organized according to the lectionary calendar of pre-Advent and Advent Sundays and special days, focusing on preparation for return of Christ.

Advent is often thought of as the four Sundays before Christmas, and a time of anticipating the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is that, and Fleming Rutledge would propose, far more. Reading Advent, it became more for me as well. This book is a collection of sermons given over many years and various locations, as well as a shorter collection of writings. Aside from the writings the sermons are organized by the Episcopal pre-Advent and Advent calendar, spanning a seven week period.

Our typical mental picture of Advent is one of warm, family-centered times of Advent calendars and activities, and the lighting of Advent wreaths. Rutledge presents us with an older tradition, and one not for the faint of heart, She reminds us of Episcopal practice, in which the church is not decorated until Christmas, in contrast to a society that decorates for Christmas with lights, ornaments, trees, and more before Thanksgiving. All this is occurring during Advent which is a time of darkness rather than light.

Rutledge reminds us that Advent occurs in a season of darkness, and in a world that is sin-darkened. It is a season of waiting for the king, and not simply for his first coming, but his return. We wait, conscious of the evil in the world and each one of us. We wait, learning to long for judgment as a setting right of things . We understand that history is coming to a culmination–a cosmic war. We wait, remembering the ministry of John who prepared the Lord’s way. Rutledge does not shy from things like judgment and hell, and believes that in the facing of biblical teaching about these things, we understand more clearly the salvation of our God in the two comings of Christ, leading us to welcome his coming in our lives.

The sermons model how to weave the events of the day, from 9/11 to an ordination into the text of a message, and to adapt material to retreats, mid-week services as well as Sundays. Most of the sermons are five or six pages in length, ideal for reading over the course of pre-Advent and Advent as a series of meditations on Advent. The sermons are not theological treatises, but rather theological addresses, from the “I” of the preacher to the “you” of her hearers. They are rich both in the unpacking of the doctrines of the incarnation and return of Christ, and practical application of these truths for individuals and congregations.

Reading this left me with fresh wonder that our God would so seek us out in the person of his Son, and left me longing for his return. To live nearly two-thirds of a century is to see a good deal of evil, including that in myself. To see the atrocities people wreak upon each others, the contemptuousness of many in power for the lowly, the desecration of a beautiful world, all leave me longing for the day when things are set right Rutledge’s sermons do not offer an escape from the harsh realities of life. Rather, the sermons repeatedly reframe these in a larger story–one in which the God who has acted in the cradle and the cross, will act decisively both to wondrously save, and judge, wiping away every tear.

It is this we await in the darkness of Advent, mirroring the darkness of the world. Rutledge helps us see what a wonder the coming of the Dayspring truly is. Her forthright messages evidence one who has reached “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” that will prepare our hearts for Christ. There is yet time to sit down with this work before Christmas begins. I was not sorry and I do not think you will be.

Reading Reflections on this book in previous posts:

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge — One

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge–Two

 

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge — One

Advent

During Lent this year, I read The Crucifixion by Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge. It was one of the richest books of theology I’ve read in the past ten years, and so I purchased a copy of AdventThat time has come and I’ve begun reading this book (not quite as long) as I await the celebration of Christ’s coming, and anticipate his return. I thought I’d share reflections as well as a review, partly to let you know as soon as possible about this book so you might be able to join me in reading during this season of Advent. Like The Crucifixion, there is such a rich feast of thought that a single review cannot do it justice!

This book is unlike The Crucifixion in consisting of a compilation of writings and sermons on Advent themes from throughout Rutledge’s ministry, given in or written for a number of different settings. The sermons have been grouped around Pre-Advent Themes, the four Sundays of Advent, concluding with a Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent. The writings and sermons are preceded by an introduction that frames the collection theologically.

This reflection covers the several sections of the book, up through page 158. Several things have been striking so far. One is the focus on the Advent as the season of the second coming. Most of us focus on the anticipation of the birth of the incarnate Lord, celebrating this first coming in all that it means for our redemption. Rutledge observes that the liturgical focus of the readings in all but the last Sunday is on the second coming of Jesus. This is what truly makes it a season of waiting. She observes:

Because the church in modern times has turned away from the proclamation of the second coming, an intentional effort must be made to reinstate it. Related to the second coming, which Jesus repeatedly says will come by God’s decision at an hour we do not expect, is the Advent emphasis on the agency of God, as contrasted with the “works” of human beings.

In another sermon she describes the tension of a passage in 2 Peter of “waiting and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord” and describes hastening as “action in waiting.” Yes, we act in the hope and anticipation of that day, but always from a posture of waiting, knowing that the Lord will return in his time on his terms.

Advent is not all sweetness and light for Rutledge. It is light into the darkness, the revealing of the line of good and evil that runs through each of us and the resistance against the Evil One, a reminder of the battleground we inhabit between the first and second Advents of Jesus.

In another sermon, Rutledge reminds us of King Hussein of Jordan, who shortly before his death, visited families of Israelis killed in an Arab terrorist bombing, simply sitting with the bereaved. Then she turns to the late Princess Diana visiting an Angolan hospital ward filled with disfigured and suffering patients coming alongside and caressing patients. Rutledge observes in each, “majesty stooped,” and that this is what we remember in Advent. The focus on the second Advent with Christ’s kingly return stands in contrast with the incarnate, helpless and vulnerable babe, who grew lived, and died for our redemption. In Christ, majesty stooped, and it truly is a wonder to behold as it was with King Hussein and Princess Diana.

This is but a taste of the rich material in the opening pages of this book. I would mention that my favorite bookseller, Hearts and Minds currently offers this and a number of other Advent books at a 20% discount. Wherever you buy or borrow this book, I hope you will have the chance to spend time in it, whether this Advent or in a future year.

 

Review: Divine Impassibility

Divine Impassibility

Divine Impassibility (Spectrum Multiview Books), Edited by Robert J. Matz and A. Chadwick Thornhill. Contributions by Daniel Castelo, James E. Dolezal, Thomas Jay Oord, and John C. Peckham. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of God’s experience of emotions and the possibility of God suffering with views ranging from one of God not changing or experiencing emotion to God, while not changing in nature, is in relation with his creatures and experiences emotions and suffering in those relationships.

Doesn’t God hear our cries and feel the pain his people suffer? Many of us would say, “of course,” not realizing that many throughout church history may have differed with us. The assertion is that God is impassible, which means that God is not able to suffer or experience pain or pleasure from the acts of others. One may wonder, “why would anyone believe that?” There are actually good reasons. If we believe that God is self-existent, and not dependent upon anything else in the universe for God’s existence, then the possibility that the acts or suffering of others could affect God would seem to jeopardize the idea of God’s self-existence in recognizing the possibility that other beings may influence or change God in some way.

In this work, a spectrum of four views are considered: strong impassibility (James E Dolezal), qualified impassibility (Daniel Castelo), qualified passibility (John C. Peckham), and strong passibility (Thomas Jay Oord). Each proponent sets forth the basic ideas of their particular view and arguments that support, the other three respond from their perspective, and the proponent makes a final response.

One of the most helpful aspects of this book are the four questions the editors ask each person to respond to. These are:

  1. To what extent is God’s emotional life analogous (similar and dissimilar) to the human emotional life?
  2. Are God’s nature, will, and knowledge passible, and to what extent?
  3. Do the incarnation and passion of Jesus Christ necessitate passibility?
  4. Does human activity (such as prayer) occasion an emotive/volitional response from God?

The introduction to the book provides a chart with summary answers to each question, showing in brief the places where the four views agree and differ. Basically, the strong impassible position would answer all of these “no,” while the strong passible position would answer all of these yes.

The qualified positions would answer “no” in some cases, a qualified “yes” or “yes” in others, and hence “qualified.” One thing that separates the qualified impassible from the qualified passible is the question of “are God’s nature, will, and knowledge passible, and to what extent. The qualified impassible would say only God’s nature is passible, and that only to the extent God allows. The qualified passible would say both God’s nature and will are passible, but not God’s knowledge–that God is voluntarily passible in relation to the world. They also differ on whether and to what extent the human and divine natures of Christ are passible. The qualified impassible would say this is so only temporarily during the incarnation in the context of an impassible God. The qualified passible would say the incarnation reveals both a passible Christ in both natures and a passible God. They would also differ as to whether God is affected by prayer, no, for the qualified impassible along with the strong impassible, yes for the qualified passible along with the strong passible.

It is thus harder to distinguish the qualified positions from each other, while the differences between the “strong” positions are clear. The strong impassible position seems most shaped by extra-biblical theological categories–God’s self-existence and actuality, and the logic of these means a refusal to take passages that speak of God’s emotions, or God “changing” in response to human acts or pleas at face value. For others, definitional issues and how language is used seems important, and I found myself wondering how this might be worked out if not framed in an impassibility/passibility binary, or dividing God into nature, will, and knowledge as if these are not part of an integral whole.

It does helpfully press the ways in which Creator and creatures are like and unlike. It seems critically important to ask how we are like and unlike God rather than the reverse, which we often do. But this begs the question of both relational and emotional capacities. If our capacities in this regard reflect (albeit in fallen ways) what it is like to be in the image of God, they must find their source in something in the nature of God. How then does a strongly impassible God create passible creatures?

This work is valuable in thinking through our thoughts of God and his relation to his world beyond our sentiments. The thoughtful and yet respectful responses of the participants model good dialogue practices one wishes were more widely evident among Christians who differ. They also respect each other’s commitment to orthodoxy and a high view of scripture. For both the content and the character of the discussion, this book is worth a read.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Make Way for the Spirit

Make Way for the Spirit

Make Way for the SpiritChristoph Friedrich Blumhardt (edited by Wolfgang J. Bittner, translated by Ruth Rhenius, Simeon Zahl, Miriam Mathis, and Christian T. Collins Winn. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A reflection on the ministry of Johann Christoph Blumhardt by his son, identifying both the continuity, and divergence of their convictions.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt had to fill large shoes. His father Johann Christoph Blumhardt had been at the center of a great awakening around the village of Mottlingen, and a later ministry at Bad Boll, that Christoph took over at his father’s death. It began with the deliverance of a young woman from demonic powers and resulted in the repentance of many villagers, especially from occult practices as well as other sins, and the introduction by Johann of granting absolution, which had a profound effect. Johann weathered critical scrutiny and criticism by church authorities, walking a delicate boundary of exercising a Spirit-directed and empowered ministry while submitting to church strictures. Another Plough publication, The Awakening (reviewed here), describes that ministry, with its rallying cry, “Jesus is victor!” in much greater detail.

One of the underlying ideas of this book is the forward moving work of the Spirit of God throughout history. The problem, as Blumhardt, the son, sees it, is that people often do not won’t to go on with the Spirit. Instead of an empowered, apostolic church defeating the powers of darkness, the church substituted structures and creeds and institutional power while remaining Christian in name.

What happened at Mottlingen illustrated both. There was a resolute struggle against the dark powers, and real breakthroughs in the advance of the kingdom in the lives of the people of Mottlingen. Yet according to Johann Blumhardt, ultimately people sought spiritual and physical healing apart from completely giving themselves to the cause of God. They sought their own comfort rather than the kingdom and righteousness of God,

While Johann admires much in his father’s life, particularly his steadfast obedience to the Lord’s leading, he faults him for being too eager to please both the people who came to him, and the church authorities, when for the sake of the ministry of the Spirit, they should have been resisted. He also describes three hopes his father entertained, that he affirms, and three false staffs that led to the disappointment of those hopes in his father’s time:

  1. The hope of a new and continuing outpouring of the Spirit. The false staff was the visible church, whose structures were not able to receive the outpoured Spirit.
  2. The hope for God’s Zion, a “city” to which the nations would stream. The false staff was mission that spread the gospel without building up Zion.
  3. The hope for the defeat of death on earth and the false staff was personal salvation and a hope of heavenly bliss that saw death as a pathway rather than the last enemy.

This last was something I had serious questions about, even though I appreciated the emphasis on a ministry of life focused on bodily resurrection. He rightly points to ways we too easily give way to death in both our physical and mental dispositions. And certainly in our own day, we witness a culture of death about which many Christians are relatively complacent. But if I’m reading Blumhardt right, it seems he believed the defeat of death on earth, without mention of the return of Christ and the resurrection, a real possibility, albeit one thwarted by wrong belief. Blumhardt’s references are somewhat allusive, and this was one point where I wish I could have asked him to tell me more, because it seems what he proposes is unorthodox at this point.

Some of the most challenging parts of this book have to do with the issue of progressing so far and then stopping, settling rather than continuing to make way for the Spirit. Connected to this is an embrace of comfort rather than a passion for the rule of God being extended, what he refers to as Zion. There is also some insightful observations about the link between physical and spiritual healing and how this should be approached in pastoral care.

What Blumhart does in his reflection on his father’s ministry, and the Spirit’s bidding for his own work, is explore the question of why awakening or revival does not continue to flourish and grow. He explores both the inner and outer dynamics that have an impact. The editing and compiling of Blumhardt’s papers into this volume (one of the reasons it may seem repetitive at points) is a gift to those who both study and seek revival. Along with scholars from Jonathan Edwards to Richard Lovelace, this study offers rich resources for those who seek to prepare both themselves and the people of God for such awakening work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.